Martin Smith: We must improve our squad or predictions of tough times will become a reality
THE release of the Premier League fixtures means the countdown is now well and truly on for the start of the new campaign.
And it seems highly likely that our fifth season in the Premier League will be just as tough as any of the previous four in the top flight for The Potters.
Indeed, Tony Pulis has already warned that he regards the forthcoming campaign as a potentially tough one, perhaps the hardest so far.
It's difficult to disagree. For starters, there are no obvious dead ducks, teams who we can bank on finishing above come next May.
All three of the promoted clubs – Reading, Southampton and West Ham – are apparently prepared to spend big to protect their new status, while none of our rivals from last season seem certain to struggle.
In fact, after the season we've just had – lowest scorers in the entire country and lowest in just about everything else related to attacking play – you could argue that we fall into that category.
Reading will certainly hope that is the case when we go to their place on August 18, the opening day of the new season.
We spent the first three years of our time in the Premier League talking about pushing on, but having failed to do that last season we're now being warned of the tough times to come.
This is perhaps partly as a result of the chairman's understandable comments towards the end of last season that we couldn't keep spending as we have done since promotion.
And that makes me wonder exactly what our plans are for the season, and what players we intend to target.
The fact we have managed to persuade Robert Huth to sign a new deal is a massive boost for the club, one which has been welcomed by every Stoke fan I know.
If speculation is to be believed, we are also chasing the signatures of Wolves winger Matt Jarvis and free agent Michael Owen, all of which has quite a few Stoke fans wondering what to expect next term.
The pursuit of Jarvis makes sense as we need extra options out wide. He is a proven player who we have tried to sign before, and who has played well against us on several occasions.
But the supposed interest in Owen is a stranger proposition. Undoubtedly, he has been a star performer, with a glittering career behind him.
That he is still a big name in football is beyond question, but is he the kind of player who would fit well into the system we play at Stoke?
And would he be the answer to any of the questions which plagued us over the final 22 league games of last season when we recorded just four victories? I'm not so sure.
If we accept that the manager has no intention of moving very far away from his preferred 4-4-1-1 formation, complete with two holding midfielders and a "forward" whose primary role is to cover maximum yardage rather than score goals, then you wonder where exactly a 32-year-old player with nagging fitness issues would fit in at Stoke.
Of course, if we acquired his services on a "pay as you play" deal, then financially we'd have nothing to worry about.
But I believe Owen's arrival would still leave Stoke with lots of issues to address if we are to bounce back from last season's struggles.
Ask Stoke fans what they believe we need to improve our squad and I'd wager good money that the words "proper full-backs" and "creative midfielder" would figure heavily in the answers.
Because we play two holding midfielders, we seem to lack that player in the middle who can dictate a game.
And our full-backs are often converted centre-backs who help us look big and uncompromising across the back, but come with obvious limitations.
Many fans would like to see a little more creativity in the team, but where are the players who can deliver this?
Ideally, you would want full-backs such as Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman, but we have to accept that, financially and realistically, these sort of players are probably not going to be coming to the Britannia Stadium.
But that doesn't mean they aren't out there, just waiting to be given their Premier League chance.
I could go out on a limb and name some names, but it would be a pointless exercise. What really matters is who Pulis is interested in and whether he's prepared to play with attacking full-backs.
That we need more from our midfield next season is, I believe, beyond serious debate.
We were bereft of goals from midfield last term, and we can hardly claim that our centre players created much either. That surely has to change if we want to improve our goals record.
We're all crossing our fingers that Wilson Palacios finally shows himself to be the player we hoped we had signed last season. If he does, then many of our problems in the middle could disappear with the click of TP's fingers.
But if it doesn't happen – and possibly even if it does – we will surely still need to make a significant move in the transfer market to reinvigorate and strengthen our midfield.
We may not be able to lure players of the quality and stature of Scott Parker, as was shown when he left West Ham for Spurs last summer, but there are good players out there who can improve our team, and it is up to TP to bring them in.
We can see some tough assignments ahead, but just how hard they prove to be will depend on the work TP and his team do between now and the August 31 transfer deadline.